Pot task force releases report amidst turmoil and disputes

Cathy Rossi

DOVER — After serious confusion, including an initial failure to gain a majority of members, a task force looking at issues around marijuana legalization voted to release to the General Assembly and governor a report summarizing six months’ worth of discussions, despite some members questioning the process and whether the group met its goals.

Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat who co-chaired the task force, appeared extremely frustrated at points throughout the meeting, while multiple opponents afterward expressed disappointment in the way the proceedings occurred.

“I’m concerned about the entire process, frankly,” Cathy Rossi, vice president of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said post-meeting.

Rep. Keeley, in contrast, said she believes the co-chairs went “above and beyond to try and accommodate many of the requests” made by opponents of legalization.

The task force was created over the summer to iron out concerns surrounding House Bill 110, which would allow recreational cannabis use. The bill has passed out of a House committee but has not been voted on by either chamber.

Wednesday was the group’s eighth meeting, and it came two weeks after a haze of confusion and disarray at a prior meeting: A vote to release the report on Feb. 28 was initially thought to have succeeded, only for it to be discovered legislative staff had miscounted and the vote had fallen short.

Wednesday’s meeting was not much better.

After spending an hour discussing what the final report would look like, with AAA and the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce seeking changes to the proposed version, the task force voted on releasing it.

As with Feb. 28’s meeting, 12 members voted in favor — one shy of a majority.

More discussion ensuing, with a visibly irked Rep. Keeley questioning why some people voted against the release.

She wasn’t the only one fed up: Nicholas Biasotto, a representative of the Medical Society of Delaware participating by teleconference, referred to the continued debate as “beating a dead horse.”

“I think a lot of what we’re doing here is redundant, repetitive and is wasting a lot of people’s time,” he said, noting the Medical Society opposes legalization but supported releasing the report.

Dr. Biasotto then left due to other commitments, seemingly leaving the task force two votes shy.

However, Rep. Keeley never officially closed the vote, meaning Dr. Biasotto still counted as a vote in favor. After Rep. Steve Smyk, a Milton Republican, switched from “no” to “yes” a few minutes later, those supporting release had a slight majority, even though Rep. Keeley did not formally announce the vote count in the meeting.

A legislative attorney later confirmed the procedure was proper.

Rep. Smyk changed his vote after a private conversation with Rep. Keeley and Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, a Wilmington Democrat and fellow co-chair, where he said they promised to include a link to reports from the federal government about drug trafficking in states that allow marijuana use.

“If I can get this into the heads of legislators, they’re going to see that it’s not working out in the states that have legalized it,” he said after the meeting.

Rep. Keeley maintained the group did not have to formally vote to release the final product because draft versions were already publicly available. Others, including Ms. Rossi, strongly disagreed with that stance.

The resolution creating the commission states “official action by the task force, including making findings and recommendations, requires the approval of a majority of the members of the task force.”

Rep. Keeley said afterward she believes the report has recommendations but no findings.

“There are recommendations in here, and again, this report is something that Sen. Henry and I now have to go back and add an amendment to House Bill 110 that will take in some of the considerations and issues that were brought to our attention,” she said.

Much of the confusion resulted from turnover among legislative aides, she said.

“I don’t know how much more I can apologize that Sen. Henry and I are stuck in a position where we have lost staff,” he said.

The meeting got heated briefly when cannabis advocate John Sybert blasted Rep. Smyk for initially voting against release, causing Rep. Smyk to snap back at him.

In a sense, it was an apt encapsulation of the meeting, a session that left several doubting the integrity and success of the task force’s work.
“If I was a chair, things would have been different,” Rep. Smyk said. “It would have been much more lengthy, it would have been much more sound and I would have asked for a years’ length of time.”

Ms. Rossi had a similar stance, describing the process as one deserving an “A for effort, with questionable results.”

“I have never seen actions such as what we have gone through in these proceedings. It’s confusing to me and probably to most members of the task force,” she said.